Missouri Sens. Kit Bond and Jim Talent are backing Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee to replace embattled Republican leader Trent Lott.
Lott was under fire for lamenting publicly that Sen. Strom Thurmond had lost his bid for president in 1948, when Thurmond ran as a segregationist. Lott resigned Friday after colleagues -- Bond and Talent among them -- openly began lining up behind Frist.
Talent said Lott did the right thing by stepping down. Lott is keeping his Senate seat.
"In resigning, I believe that Sen. Lott showed the qualities of courage and leadership that he has demonstrated his entire public life in making this difficult but necessary decision," Talent said in a statement.
At a news conference in suburban St. Louis Friday afternoon, Talent said he had spoken with Lott and believes he didn't mean that he supports segregation, but that he had lost the ability to lead.
"Sen. Lott has been punished for it in the public square. It would be better for everybody if we move on," Talent said.
Hours before Lott resigned, Bond joined the handful of senators publicly backing Frist, saying Missourians "are deeply troubled" by controversy over Lott's remarks.
"I have concluded that the current controversy has completely overshadowed our efforts to expand the American dream to all Americans," Bond said in a statement. "This is unacceptable. Clearly, it is in the best interest of the nation for us to resolve quickly this matter by turning to new leadership.
"And I believe Bill Frist can provide the strong leadership and positive agenda."
In an interview later, Bond said he strongly urged Lott to step down when they talked by telephone Thursday.
"I just said we have to move on; we have to have leadership that can speak to all Americans and leadership that everybody, the party and the country, can be comfortable with," Bond said.
Of Frist, Bond said: "When he first came in, we thought, 'Man, he's bright, he's a doctor, he's a brilliant scholar,' but we questioned whether he knew anything about politics.
"But after his leadership of the Republican senatorial committee over the last two years, I think we're all agreed he's caught onto politics pretty quick," Bond said.
Talent was lobbying fellow freshman senators to support Frist, too.